From a St. Croix River childhood flowed generations of conservation

Tia Nelson shares memories of her father’s early life in the region, how it inspired him to protect the environment, and how she carries on the legacy.




7 minute read

Tia, Jeffrey, Carrie Lee, Gaylord, and Gaylord Nelson, Jr. (left to right) on the Nelson-La Follette whistle-stop campaign tour (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Tia Nelson and her father had very different childhoods, but both were inspired by their experiences to dedicate their careers to protecting natural resources. The daughter of Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin Governor and Senator who led the charge to protect the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers in the 1960s, recently spoke with St. Croix 360 about hers and her father’s work.

Gaylord grew up in Clear Lake, Wis., a small farm town 20 miles east of the St. Croix River, near its tributary the Willow River. He roamed the countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, and all over northwestern Wisconsin with his father, developing a deep appreciation for nature.

After college, law school, and service in World War II, he entered politics. When Tia was two years old, Gaylord was elected Governor of Wisconsin. When she was six, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and their family moved to Washington, D.C. Gaylord ultimately served three terms in the Senate, until his daughter was an adult.

For Tia, her early years were spent learning her way around the halls of power.

She says her father was busy and could not be at home much, and she “adored him,” so she went to work with him as much as possible. She sat in on meetings, opened mail, and watched him debate and vote on the Senate floor. The family also accompanied him on many campaign trips.

“Running around the capitol was something I was doing long before I got to work in government relations and policy advocacy,” Tia says.

She also grew up with a love for nature and animals, studying wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It all led her to a career in environmental advocacy, spending decades working in Latin America, Washington, Madison, and elsewhere.

Tia Nelson (Photo by by Kevin J. Miyazaki, courtesy of the Outrider Foundation)

“It’s my life’s purpose and I can’t imagine not doing it,” she says.

Tia will be the keynote speaker at the St. Croix River Association’s annual spring gathering on May 17 in Shafer, Minn.

Clear Lake to the capitol

Tia says that her father”s childhood exploring Wisconsin’s woods and waters in the 1920s and 1930s inspired him to preserve the nation’s natural resources. As a boy, he canoed the nearby St. Croix River, visited the Apostle Islands, and was awed by turtles migrating between lakes in his hometown.

“These were special places for him, the attachment to the lands and waters were very important,” his daughter recalls.

Once he became Governor of Wisconsin, and then Senator, she says those places were some of the first he sought to protect. Preserving natural resources was consistently one of his highest priorities in office.

Canoeing down the Namekagon River in 1966, Gaylord Nelson in the bow, with Chief Running Elk, Pipe Mustache, on the stern. (Photo via Janie Wise)

Nelson was dubbed “The Conservation Governor” while serving as Wisconsin’s chief executive from 1958-1962, promoting numerous environmental initiatives. The popularity of a $50 million fund he promoted to acquire public land and access to waterways helped him win a Senate seat in 1962.

For Gaylord, a healthy environment was fundamental to equality and prosperity.

But in Washington, he found that not everybody shared his priorities for protecting nature.

Responding to what he saw as an urgent issue with too little awareness, much less action, he sought to build momentum for conservation. Shortly after joining the Senate, he urged President John F. Kennedy to make the environment a priority. He even got Kennedy to visit Nelson’s old Apostle Islands stomping grounds with him.

By 1965 he was working to protect the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers, and eventually helped ensure they were included in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.

Earth Day

Eventually, Gaylord realized conservation must be a grassroots movement, not a top-down campaign. It was everyday Americans who were harmed by factories that dumped toxic waste directly into rivers, or spewed it into the atmosphere, and it was they who must demand better.

Seeing the need for Americans to learn about threats to clean air and water, and speak up to their elected officials about it, he called for the first Earth Day in 1969. The grassroots was ready to grow, even more than he anticipated.

On April 22, 1970, Congress adjourned so members could go home to participate, and thousands of local events gave Americans the chance to discuss the environmental issues affecting their communities.

About 20 million people participated, and it’s now called the largest secular event in American history. “It was successful beyond his wildest dreams,” Tia says.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson spoke to an overflow crowd on the first Earth Day in Denver, Colorado. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

It also led to the passage of key environmental legislation, with Republican President Richard Nixon soon signing critical laws like the Clean Water Act, extending the Clean Air Act, and creating the Environmental Protection agency.

Almost 50 years later, Earth Day is still going strong. More than a billion people around the world are estimated to participate each year.

“That it became a recurring and enduring event, was a complete surprise to him, a delightful one,” Tia says. But the goal of protecting the Earth is far from reality. Tia continues her father’s push for protection.

A complicated dance

Tia says that Earth Day is still special to her. It’s always when she most misses her father, who passed away in 2005.

Tia and Gaylord Nelson

It’s also when she’s confronted with his unfinished business. She sees serious problems, and solutions that are being ignored.

“This Earth Day was probably the most challenging in my lifetime, it’s a complicated dance between hope and despair,” Tia says. “We’ve done so much but we are faced today with a climate crisis that is quite daunting and requires significant efforts and actions.”

The need for broad, bold action resonates with one of her key beliefs: Anybody can do something.

Her current work with the Wisconsin-based Outrider Foundation is focused on spreading that message, helping more people understand how they can reduce their climate impact. This year, she is producing a series of short videos highlighting lesser-known strategies, like reducing food waste and single-use plastics.

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of climate change emissions in the world after China and the United States,” she says. Throwing away food also wastes a lot of money. Plastic, meanwhile, is made from petroleum products, requires energy to manufacture, and emits more carbon dioxide when it decays.

But gloom and doom just don’t get very far in bringing new people into their work.

‘Growing the congregation’

Focusing on solutions is a key strategy Tia sees for expanding the circle of people engaged in environmental issues.

To “reach beyond the choir,” Tia explained how Outrider is working with Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brent Suter. She says Suter “walks the talk,” with solar on his home, not eating beef and most dairy, and discussing climate with his teammates in the locker room.

As Sports Ambassador for the Environment, Suter is helping new people pay attention to climate change. He is spearheading a MLB campaign called #StrikeOutWaste.

“To make any significant progress, we also need to increase the size of our congregation,” Suter says. “Sports is a great way to reach new audience members, and that’s one reason I’m so excited to team up with Outrider to expand our collective voice.”

Tia was in Washington again earlier this week, for a Climate Leadership Conference hosted by ecoAmerica, the board of which she recently joined. The organization is similarly focused on climate change and expanding the circle of people involved, focusing on faith, health, communities, higher education, and business leaders and institutions.

Tia believes work like hers “helps empower people to imagine a brighter future and see themselves as part of that brighter future.”

Yet she also knows there are bigger challenges that must be met. While all Americans can take steps to reduce their impacts, Tia says people across the political spectrum must vote for conservation, and the people they elect must step up to the task.

“Government has a responsibility to protect our right to breathe clean air and drink clean water,” she says.

Back to the future

Photo courtesy Sunrise Movement

There are lessons about environmental politics in her father’s career: conservation needs support from both Republicans and Democrats, and young people must call on them to act. Tia says there’s an urgent need for politicians to engage in a “rational bipartisan dialogue” about climate change and the possible policies for addressing it.

She points to a recent promising step in that direction. On Earth Day this year, former Republican Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson and former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold signed on as honorary co-chairs of an initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Thompson and Feingold helped launch the Year of the Environment At UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, to celebrate the milestone. Restoring bipartisanship will be a key goal of the initiative.

“As a conservative Republican and a progressive Democrat, we don’t agree on many things, but we both believe that Americans need to be good stewards of the natural resources upon which our environment, economy and public health are dependent,” the pair wrote in a USA Today commentary.

The statement sounds like something that could have been said 50 years ago, when environmental legislation was passed in Congress with almost no opposition. But such action only happened when people started talking about it.

Once again today, his daughter Tia says there is simply not enough conversation about the environment in America. But it’s getting louder.

To find the conversation and the calls for action today, Tia doesn’t need to read old speeches. She looks to young people who have recently emerged as a powerful political force on climate change.

Naming 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and groups like Zero Hour and the Sunrise Movement, Tia says they are using activism and social media in “really sophisticated way to inspire youth to stand up and demand leadership from adults to address this issue.”

Tia was 14 when the first Earth Day took place. In a sense, she is now seeing something similar rise up. While issues like air and water pollution remain critical, the existential threats of climate change have catalyzed a new generation working to protect the environment humans depend on for survival.

“I’m quite inspired by the youth movements that are growing in strength and power in the U.S. and abroad,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime.”


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One response to “From a St. Croix River childhood flowed generations of conservation”

  1. […] the chief author of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which included the St. Croix and Namekagon. Read more about this local conservation connection in an article from local writer Greg Seitz of St. Croix 360 […]


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From a St. Croix River childhood flowed generations of conservation